Flat Design

When we open our eyes and emerge from the excruciatingly painful world of “making it pop”, we realise that we are quite an intelligent species (sure, ants build walls too, but they don’t talk to their therapists about it). It’s then that we start to appreciate other ways of doing things, other means of achieving the same goal.

When it comes to design, there are many ways of reaching your audience and many ways of saying the same thing. There are better ways and there are not-so-better ways. I’m going to take a few minutes out of your busy schedule and tell you about one of my favourite ways of getting that message across – flat design.

Caveat: this is not for the gifted few who think I’m talking about the design of the Earth. That’s another blog, in a completely different section of the internet.

Let’s get into it.

What is flat design?

Flat design is a minimalist style of design that is inspired by the early Bauhaus art movement and the more recent Swiss digital design style. It uses simple shapes and contrasting colours, with bold typography, keeping everything very two-dimensional. This style of design makes information easier to digest. It is also easier and quicker to develop and increases the website speed for optimal user experience.

Flat design became a famous trend in the early 2010. Windows kicked off Windows 8 in 2012 with an entirely flat design, followed by Apple with the release of their iOS 7 software in 2013. It’s still highly popular today.

Using these minimalistic characteristics, flat design opposes Skeuomorphism, which is the design style used in the earlier days of the internet consisting of 3D shapes with prominent shadows, giving hyper realistic appearances to these inanimate objects. Apple famously used Skeuomorphism with their early renditions of the iOS interface before moving over to flat design to broaden their design systems across all platforms and devices.

Let’s have a look at a quick example that I created that shows you exactly how this style works and how simple it can be. I have used 3 rectangles and 2 lines to create this wine bottle:

Create a background colour. Create a rectangle and round off the top edges. Create another rectangle for the neck of the bottle. Create another rectangle for the cork. Lastly, use the pen tool to create two lines that give it a subtle shine.

What makes flat design so important?

As design became more inclusive, something needed to change, and that thing, was design itself. Many users have limitations that we have to be cognizant of at all times. These limitations come in many different forms and are things like colour blindness, geographical considerations, economic climates in those locations and certain disabilities. So as designers, we must pay attention to a few things and ask ourselves a few questions, which could improve the user experience.

Is there enough colour contrast for the user to see the differences? A great chrome extension I use is called Colorblindly and it shows you what users with different colour vision deficiencies will see, e.g., someone who is red-blind (Protanopia) or someone who is blue-weak (Tritanomaly).

Are the colours for action buttons cohesively used so users know they are action buttons when they come across them?

If the website is being used in many third world countries, where the majority of users only have access to a mobile device, does it respond well to the size?

How much can we improve download speed for a faster user experience? This is also an accessibility question for users in third world countries that might be dealing with certain data limitations.

When designing a digital product, it is important to remember that the entire objective is to solve a problem for the user. The layout of content on the interface is the only way we achieve this.

To guide users through a flow we must carefully design each step concisely. Flat design helps us accomplish this by keeping designs clean, which lessens the cognitive load for the user and allows little to no room for confusion.

Who uses flat design?

Many large technology companies have created intricate design systems showing the importance of cohesive design elements. These systems create this consistent look and feel throughout a digital product or an ecosystem of products. The top three design systems that exist today and come as no surprise, have been created by tech behemoths Google (Google Material Design), Apple (Human Interface Guidelines) and Microsoft (Microsoft Fluent Design System).

Many large companies have rebranded their identities to make use of flat design that appeals to a larger audience and makes the brand interaction more accessible. A few notable mentions are Burger King, Visa and Sprite.

Is flat design the way forward?

Although there is some science behind the design style, it does succumb to the rolling blackout we like to refer to as a “trend”. This is when nothing quite sticks, and people like to jump on it, because everyone else does.

Many people believe Flat Design to be boring and lifeless (see meaning: make it pop) and that the minimalistic design style should be blended with something more exciting. There are valid reasons for these opinions because it is very easy to miss the mark with minimalistic, flat design.

For example, Google recently implemented a rebrand that consisted of all app icons making use of the same colour blocks to create a symbiotic look. The problem: all the app icons look the same and users were struggling to differentiate between apps like Google Mail and Google Drive, or Google Calendar because suddenly, they didn’t possess any significant differentiator for users to quickly identify and choose the correct app.

We are seeing a movement away from the subtle colour breaks synonymous with traditional flat design. We are now moving towards a “harder” style of flat design, which emphasises differentiation, but keeping things clean and simple. This style is called Brutalism. Brutalism uses all the standard elements of flat design, but the most notable differences are the use of thicker strokes to outline elements and stack them on top of one another. There is technically a drop shadow, but it’s flat and using two wildly opposite colours, instead of two harmonious ones.

Closing thoughts on flat design

We must keep in mind that design is a way to solve a problem. It is not necessarily a form of art, in that it cannot be abstract. The user needs to be considered and the user needs to be guided to the solution. The best way to do this is through clean and clear design, allowing people to easily see what they need to see, and then say, “wow that looks nice” instead of – “wow that looks nice, but what am I supposed to do again?!”.

If Mike Tyson had to sit me down and ask me to tell the truth about whether or not flat design is just a trend that’s going to fizzle out, I’d simply pass out and it would be a mystery for generations to come. But I will say this – the fundamentals are here to stay. Whether it gets Brutalised or some new rendition comes along, flat design will find its way into every design team across the world, because it is quite simply the best way to convey information to the end user.

And that’s what we do here at Grindstone. We design with the end in mind. Sometimes you like something but find that it just isn’t practical, and you must be fine with that, because what is practical, and nice, is the thing that is going to wow your clients.

We are an entire team of skilled professionals that quite literally consume ourselves with the best way of doing this daily. So, if you ever wonder what you’ll write for your brand, we have someone for that. If you perhaps find yourself a little puzzled by what your website will look like, we have someone for that. If you think Ads and social media aren’t your bag and you’re stressed about being online, we have someone for that. If you are starting out and you are absolutely confuzzled about what your brand is even going to look like, we have someone for that. And if you want flat design, we have someone for that.

With that being said, give us a brief, tell us your dreams, take a short holiday, and we’ll do the rest. We’ll have something great for you when you return.

Esther Jacobs

Esther is a content producer by profession and a conservationist by avocation. She has gained an eclectic mix of skills throughout her couple of decades of working in copywriting and social media management. Esther’s passion lies in conservation and she controls the office naughty jar for anyone who dares bring single-use plastic to work. She also boasts being nominated as Scotland’s Ambassador of Rock through Hard Rock Cafe, once-upon-a-time.

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